By ALAN SMASON
Two of the hippest Jews in jazz will join forces this weekend at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro in the persons of pianist Michael Wolff and bass player Jeff Berlin. Wolff and Berlin, who have known each other since the Seventies when they were immersed in the New York scene as in-demand session players, will be on stage with drummer Michael Clark as part of the jazz power trio Wolff and Clark Expedition.
Wolff, who lived in New Orleans for a time as a youngster before moving to Memphis, has played with famous jazz and pop stars like Nancy Wilson and the late Nat “Cannonball” Adderly, Cal Tjader, and Warren Zevon. His musical credentials eventually got him hired as Arsenio Hall’s music director on the talk show host’s first late-night excursion. He is a highly respected composer, arranger, producer, vocalist and educator and has toured the country with his own jazz trios and quartets for many years. Wolff has made stops in New Orleans for five of the last six Thanksgivings to visit with family members who still live here.
The last time Wolff played at Snug Harbor Jazz Club was in November of 2011, the first time he and drummer and partner Clark officially toured as the Wolff and Clark Expedition.
Berlin’s experiences in music mirror many of Wolff’s early successes. He attended the Berklee School of Music, which by his own admission was much smaller in the Seventies. He immediately hit the New York jazz and fusion scene, playing with Toots Thielemans, Pat Martino and later Patrick Moraz, who was then a featured performer in the rock group Yes.
“I was a young fire-breathing kid at at time when electric bass was really respected and my particular approach to the bass was embraced,” Berlin recalls. His technical abilities were only marginally surpassed by his super-inflated ego, he suggests.
About five years ago he left the New York jazz scene to follow his own dream of establishing a music school in Clearwater, FL. “I’m very much into a whole other way of working things now,” he claims. “Music itself is rarely taught anymore and because of that, it’s not was it used be like.”
Berlin believes that, because music is not popular in academics, an approach to music education like his is crucial to grooming talented new players. “If you want to learn how to play, you might as well learn the language of the instrument you’ve chosen,” he explains.
To prove his point, he asks rhetorically: “Name anything you pay to learn where the facts are not foremost in those lessons.”
“You don’t learn music in the emotional element of it,” Berlin continues. “You actualize the playing of music so that eventually you can put feeling into it.”
Berlin and Wolff will soon have another item in common. Berlin has recorded a new album for Random Act Records, a record company run by fellow Jew Scott Elias, a former executive with Verve Records. Elias released his label’s latest compact disc, the self-titled “Wolff and Clark Expedition” less than a month ago. It includes originals as well as covers of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” and the Ojays’ “For the Love of Money.” Although Berlin did not play bass on “Wolff and Clark Expedition,” he is completely at home with their repertoire. His own Randon Act recording willl be released in the spring.
Formerly the drummer with Herbie Hancock’s band, Clark got to know Wolff over the course of the last nine years. The two so enjoyed their occasional gigs with one another they endeavored to make them more regular.
The pair believe their rapport gives them a lot of freedom to delve into different groupings. “It’s just a lot of freedom of what we want to do and the personnel,” admits Wolff. “It’s kind of sleek. We can play with any kind of musicians we want and any guise, If we want to add violins, we can add violins, for example.”
Wolff says he does keep up with Hall, who has been announced as coming back in the fall with a new late-night talk show. However, he has not been contacted to take over as the new music director when that series bows. “It’s a fine gig,” he says. “It was great for me. It changed my life for the better for sure.”
Wolff and his actress-director wife Polly Draper (“Thirty Something”), whom he met on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” have been busy on a number of side projects. Polly, who worked on Broadway in “Standing on Ceremony,” has a recurring role on the new CBS drama “Golden Boy” and is working on directing a new film she had written to be produced by Fred Roos. Most notably, though, she and Wolff have been watching the careers of their two sons Nat and Alex Wolff, also known as the Nickleodeon Channel’s The Naked Brother Band, take off.
Nat Wolff stars along with big names Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in the soon-to-be-released (March 22) film “Admission.” He will also be a featured actor in the upcoming film “Stuck in Love” with Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly. Alex Wolff has recently worked on the project “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” with Ben Kingsley that will be shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. He was featured in 2011’s “The Sitter” with comic actor Jonah Hill. Both brothers have songs in each of their recent films (Nat in “Stuck in Love” and Alex in “A Birder’s Guide…”) and had toured in support of their 2011 released album”Black Sheep.”
Michael Wolff has stated he and his Christian wife have brought both boys up with respect for Jewish traditions, especially at holiday time. Although he is not particularly observant, Wolff does have a respect for his faith background.
Likewise, Berlin has not been especially observant in his approach to his faith. However, because his father is a Holocaust survivor, his feelings run very deeply. “Judaism is in my heart and profoundly in my heart as much as anything,” he states. “My Jewishness is profound and fully in my soul.”
Berlin has played several gigs – at least six by his counting – in Israel and he marvels at the Jewish homeland. The last trip there for him was just last year.
“Israel is a Jewish country but it is not a religious Jewish country,” he explains. “I love this because it’s an internal Jewish strife determined by Jews who amongst themselves determine the line that they want to pursue.”
The Wolff and Clark Expedition plays two shows nightly at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, 626 Frenchmen Street, on Saturday, March 9 and Sunday, March 10 with start times at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. Doors open one hour prior to show times. Tickets for the Wolff and Clark Expedition starring Michael Wolff, Mike Clark and Jeff Berlin are $25.00 each and available by dialing 504-949-0696 and leaving credit card information. All ticket sales are final. For more information click here.